The top of the standings in the Sprint Cup Series is typically littered with big-money teams backed by sponsors willing to throw millions of dollars at having a successful race program. With such an investment, sponsors have many divergent expectations for their teams.
Sponsors want to be able to associate one individual driver as the racing face of the team they support. Making the race is more important, however, since the sponsors pay to see their logos in the races on Saturday nights and Sundays. If a driver doesn't qualify for a race the sponsor doesn't gain full value of their investment.
Racers themselves will do whatever it takes to join their counterparts on the track. After failing to qualify himself, Michael Waltrip once purchased a spot in the race day field for $100,000 from another competitor who had successfully qualified. A reasonable, as well as common, tactic is replacing the full-time driver with a part-time driver who is believed to have a better chance of qualifying for the weekend's race.
Past champion's provisional
The use of part-time drivers is almost always focused on getting a car into the field. Inasmuch, you will usually see one of two types of fill-in drivers:
- Past champions eligible for the past champion's provisional
- Specialists on the type of track where the race is being run on a given weekend.
The past champion's provisional was created in 1991, largely in response to Richard Petty missing the spring race at Richmond in 1989. The purpose was to make sure a past champion - and in this case a racing legend, which fans were specifically paying their money to see race - was in the race field. The past champion's provisional took on many forms through 1998, when Darrell Waltrip used it to make the field in 20 races. At that point, Cup rulemakers determined to limit the number of past champion's provisionals that one driver or team could use. Currently, past champions can enter six races on the past champion's provisional, which was set prior to the 2005 season. Owners also are limited to six, regardless of which driver they use.
To complicate matters, the top 35 in owner points are guaranteed to make a race in which they attempt to qualify, leaving eight spots available to any teams outside the top 35 hoping to qualify. If a team can put an eligible past champion in the car, they are guaranteed one of those eight spots. Further, only one past champion can take the provisional, so the most recent champion is given priority. A provisional isn't charged if the past champion qualifies for the race by other means - either top 35 in owner points or on time. Confused?
Thankfully, there are only three possible drivers that are relevant to this discussion as past champions not on a top-35 team. Tony Stewart, who will be moving to a new car and new ownership group, will fall under this category, as will Bill Elliott, but there is a possibility for the second straight year that Kurt Busch will be looking at the provisional.
Since entering the Sprint Cup Series, Stewart has not had to worry about qualifying for a race or using the past champions provisional until this season. Since he decided that he would join forces with Haas CNC Racing to form Stewart-Haas Racing, his No. 14 car is now 43rd in the owners points standings, which is the worst of the three mentioned above. Last season, Stewart did not have much trouble qualifying near the top of the racing grid each week. He qualified 30th or worst only six times last season compared to 13 top-10 qualifying runs in 2008. Stewart will be able to arrive at the race track each week and know that he will receive the past champions provision. He last one the Sprint Cup Series in 2005, which is the most recent of any of the other drivers.
Elliott will once again drive the Wood Brothers' No. 21 car but the team has reduced the number of races they will compete in this season. Elliott will only be driving in 12 races this season because the team is being hit hard by the struggling economy. He will be racing in the Daytona 500 as well as all the 1 1/2-mile tracks because Ford's program is strongest at those race tracks. Elliott struggled in qualifying last season, starting 30th or worst in 12 of the 20 races he competed in, but was able to start in the top 10 twice. Unfortunately, his finishes were not much better, 30th or worst 11 times and posting a season-best 12th place in the final race in 2008. At this point, if Stewart were able to qualify for each race, Elliott would be next in line for the free pass to the races he is entered in.
The provisional may have a bit of a twist again this season because Busch may find himself out of the top 35 in owner points if Penske Racing decides to swap his owner points with his teammate Sam Hornish Jr. so they can guarantee Hornish's spot in the first five races. This occurred last season because Busch was able to use the past champion provisional. It appeared like he needed it last season, starting 36th or worst in three of the first five races of the season, but only started 30th or worst in six more races. He had 10 top-10 qualifying runs last season, so he has shown that he can do well in qualifying. The risky part this season if the switch in owner points occurs is that Busch is no longer in the driver's seat for the provision since Stewart won his championship in 2005 while Busch won his in 2004. Busch would need Stewart to qualify for the first five races to be guaranteed of a spot.
The past champion's provisional is not a guarantee to make the top 35, however. In 2007, Dale Jarrett was unable to get into the top 35 despite his free pass into the first five races. Out of provisionals and having to qualify on time, the No. 44 car only ran in 18 races in 2007 while finishing outside the top 35.
Part-time drivers are also commonly used as specialists on specific racetrack types. This is most apparent at the road course races at Infineon Raceway and Watkins Glen International. "Road Course Ringers," drivers with much more experience on these types of tracks, are brought in to handle the right turns and flat race surfaces unique to these two courses. Sometimes cars are fielded specifically for a road course specialist such as Boris Said.
Said represents an exception to the norm, however. Usually the best of the ringers are brought in as replacements on cars that are struggling to make or stay in the top 35 in points. For teams in the top 35, the potential for a top-10 finish is enough incentive to leave their full-time driver on the sidelines for two weeks a season. For teams not in the top 35 in points, the ringers not only offer a rare chance for an excellent finish, but the best chance for qualifying on time.
Said, probably the best known part-time specialist, did not have much success in his races. His best finish in 2008 was 24th place at Watkins Glen. He had very good starting positions for his other two races but was not able to finish them because of an accident and mechanical problem.
Ron Fellows is another driver that saw time as a road specialist in 2008. He drove in two road races in the No. 01 Car for the now defunct Dale Earnhardt Inc. He was able to finish in 13th place at Watkins Glen but was only able to post a 29th-place finish at Infineon. If he wants to continue to be a road specialist for teams, he will have to work with a different team this season because the No. 01 Chevrolet is no longer in use after the creation of Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing.
P.J. Jones had only one shot to show his skills at Watkins Glen last season, and he mustered a weak 37th-place finish. He has driven in at least two races in three of the last five seasons and for several different racing teams, which indicates that he is known as a specialist and can be used in a select number of races. He drove for Hall of Fame Racing in the No. 96 Car last season, but it is not known which team he will drive for this season.
The final specialist of note is Scott Pruett, who was called in last season to drive the No. 41 car for Chip Ganassi Racing at Infineon. Pruett finished in 38th place, due to an accident, in his only race of the season. He has had success on road courses, posting a top-10 finish in five straight years from 2002 to 2006. The No. 41 Dodge is 31st in owner points, but since he drives only one or two races a season, he is unlikely to make a big difference.
Fantasy NASCAR outlook
Teams that call upon part-time drivers are usually teams in the lower portions of the owner standings who are looking for a quality finish by one of the drivers to help their point total or a racing team is not in the top 35 and are looking for someone who can qualify for a road race or a specialty race so they can accumulate points. The only driver who would be running in a top-35 car this season if the same couplings were to occur would be Pruett, but as previously stated, since he races in only one or two events, he likely will not make a big splash in the standings.
There are several teams that used part-time drivers last season that could use these drivers again. Hall of Fame Racing/Yates Racing and maybe even Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing could use these tactics based on previous actions by the owners of the teams. Said's racing team basically just races the specialty tracks, topping out at nine races in 2005.
Fantasy owners should not consider picking a driver in these situations. Using one of these drivers in a road course or specialty course does not guarantee an owner a good finishing spot. The only real time an owner would look to use one of these part-time drivers would be for a spot start at Infineon, Watkins Glen or at a superspeedway. These drivers and there situations can be monitor if a fantasy owner is really interested in a driver, but none of these drivers will be active enough to help a winning NASCAR fantasy team, especially if drivers, not cars, are owned.